At approximately 2:50 pm yesterday, April 15, bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Many were injured; three died. I stood in the little room we call my office, just off the kitchen, an hour before I was to leave for the Monday night workshop, watching the coverage. It brought back memories of watching news footage of other tragedies in April, particularly the shootings at Virginia Tech, my alma mater, which occurred on April 16, 2007, and which had already been on my mind.
I wondered whether the prompts and poems I had chosen for that night’s workshop would be appropriate, under the circumstances. I recalled some words from Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others (Oxford University Press) about trusting the group’s energy. I decided to let people choose for themselves whether to talk or write about what had happened, and proceeded with my prepared materials.
We opened with e.e. cummings’ poem “Spring is like a perhaps hand,” then I handed out, face down, photos from Christopher Payne’s gorgeous book, Asylum, and offered the following invitation: When you’re ready, turn the picture over. Notice where your eyes go first, and use that detail as the way into a piece of writing.
When I turned my own photo over, I was at first disappointed to see the sweep of a marble staircase, a stunning image, but one I have seen many times and written about before. Where was the surprise in that? But I allowed myself to stay with what my eyes went to first, and this is what I wrote.
Light enters through the large window at the back and to one side of the room, beneath the arches, past the broken tile. Enters? No, it gambols, it bursts, it sings without words: yes, worlds decay and people die, but I still shine; even when you cannot see me, I am here. Cloud cover merely hides me from your sight but have faith, I shine still behind the gray.
I shine on days of celebration and sadness, oversee triumph and tragedy both.
I was at Waco, in Oklahoma City, at Columbine and Virginia Tech, tragedies of Aprils past, and whether you could feel my warmth or not, whether I appeared robust or sickly, I was in Boston today.
You live because because I exist.
Because I exist, there are plants to eat, plants to feed the animals that labor and the ones that feed you, there is warmth enough that nearly every corner of this blue and green planet is home to some of your brethren. And that is true regardless of the actions of one or more of your brethren–someone who, despite ideology or religion or disregard for human life, breathes the same air, basks in the same rays you feel upon your own skin.
So it is, so it has always been, so it will always be.
I have seen it all: there is nothing new. Only the actors change; only different are the names on the lists, each slotted almost randomly into one of those discrete categories: survivors, victims, perpetrators.
I? I am the silent, omnipresent witness, and I can change nothing.